Understanding the difference between behavioral and situational interview questions is the first step to nailing your job interview.
You’re about to go into a small room where someone will ask you questions and they’ll be judging your answers. No, this isn’t an interrogation, it’s a job interview, but it can feel just as stressful.
When you’re applying to entry-level jobs, the job requirements and interview questions can make it seem like you need years of experience, a blue ribbon, and a Pulitzer Prize to land the job.
Relax. You’ve got this.
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Not every job applicant makes it to the interview round. If you’ve made it this far, it means that the hiring manager liked what she saw on your resume and wants to get to know you. She’ll ask you questions about yourself and your experiences to see if you’re a good fit for the job and can grow with the company.
An experienced interviewer will know how to assess your qualifications by using two common categories of job interview questions: behavioral and situational. Behavioral interview questions ask about examples of past performance. Hiring managers use behavioral questions as they recognize past performance is a good indicator of future performance. Situational questions ask about how you’d act in a hypothetical situation. While the responses to these questions can demonstrate a candidate’s knowledge and understanding of best practice, it doesn’t require them to provide specific examples.
Here are four questions to be prepared for and how to answer them.
Behavioral interview questions
What is your biggest weakness?
This is a tricky one because you don’t want to say something cliché, like you’re a perfectionist or that you are your own biggest critic. The hiring manager is looking for an honest answer and wants to see how self-aware you are of your weaknesses. But you also don’t want to share something that may impact your performance on the job—if you’re applying to be a news reporter, don’t focus on how you can’t stick to a tight deadline. Instead, try to go with something that isn’t related to the job and focus on how you are working to improve it.
If public speaking makes you nervous, you could say: “Sometimes I get nervous before speaking to a crowd of people, but I started taking improve classes once a week and now I feel much more confident.”
Tell me about a time when you failed at something?
The strategy here is to talk about an actual failure, but one that wouldn’t totally affect your ability to be successful at this job. Everyone fails or makes mistakes sometimes, but not everyone recovers gracefully.
Gelwicks recommends always sharing something positive that happened or what you learned from the experience. “The hiring manager wants to see that you can be honest about times you have failed and own up to them. They also want to see how you learned from your mistakes,” she says.
Let’s say you were in charge of leading the style section of the school newspaper and you were working on a street-style photography article about spring fashion on campus. You had a lot of homework, and it was finals week, so you didn’t start taking photos until the weekend before it was due—and it rained all weekend! But, instead of telling your interviewer that you ended up with a bunch of photos of raincoats and umbrellas, you could say that you learned to always prep at least two weeks in advance and to have a backup plan.
Situational interview questions
How would you manage a difficult customer?
You have to be ready for this one if you’re in a customer-facing industry. The hiring manager is looking for insight into your communication and interpersonal skills. “Think about how you would handle this situation including your approach and the steps you would take to ensure the customer’s concerns were dealt with leading to a positive outcome.”
You could say something like: “Before I begin the job, I’d speak to my manager to find out company policies and her preferences for talking to tough customers. My first instinct would be to listen to the customer, stay calm and professional, and to either help solve the situation if it’s an easy fix, or talk to my manager if it’s something that I think I should get approval on, like returning an item even though the customer doesn’t have the receipt.”
What would you do if you were faced with multiple deadlines and a heavy workload?
There’s likely to come a time that you have a zillion and one deadlines. Just think back to last semester when you had a group project, a research paper, mid-terms, and tons of social obligations. It’s kinda like that.
The hiring manager is testing to see how well you cope with pressure and if you can successfully prioritize your workload to meet demands. Consider possible solutions, like how you’d prioritize, delegate, or ask for help. Describe, step-by-step how you would successfully manage these challenges.
You could say something like: “As editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet, I’m used to dealing with tight deadlines and a heavy workload. I order my to-do list by due date and priority, but if I wasn’t sure of what mattered most to my manager, I’d ask.”
Craft smart answers in advance
You will face these questions—and more like them—because hiring managers need to know that the person they hire has both feet planted firmly on the ground.